The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
February 2, 2011
Roundabout Theatre Company and director Michael Wilson should get some special award for bravery and stamina for reviving this rather unknown play written by Tennessee Williams in 1963, considered by most of the experts a failure and the beginning of the down-the-hill path for the author of the globally acknowledged masterpieces A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.
I’m happy to say that their risky bet paid off. For me, at least. I saw the production twice and I could see it again. Yes, the main reason is the fierce yet vulnerable wannabe grande dame Flora "Sissy" Goforth, brought to a new life by Olympia Dukakis, who grounds the show in earthy humor while riding a roller coaster of emotions.
Flora is a recognizable character in Tennessee Williams’s playground of archetypes: the beauty who toyed with men’s hearts but now has to face the end of the game. In this case, she’s ready to employ an arsenal of artifices—from tyrannical wit to flirtatious cynicism, from bawdy vulgarity to sensual prowess, from candid delusion to unstoppable joie de vivre (zest for life)—just to stay on the top on this annoying situation: an inevitable death.
Goforth (go-forth—got it?) is spending her last summer in her mountaintop villa on Italy’s Divina Costiera (divine—got it?) where she dictates her memoirs whenever she feels like to a—not only sexually—frustrated young widowed secretary, Frances Black, aka Blackie. Their less than serene daily routine is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Chris Flanders, a 39-year-old poet and mobile-maker, a sort of gigolo with a metaphysical touch. A special “gift” of calling on wealthy elderly ladies just a few steps before the undertaker has brought him a morbid prestige and the nickname “Angel of Death,” a fact revealed by Sissy’s dinner guest, the so-called "Witch of Capri"—a role originally written for a woman, played here by the effectively campy Edward Hibbert (Noel Coward rendered the crony in the 1968 film version Boom! starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, another flop).
Fortunately, Wilson created this version of the script by working with Williams’s multiple revisions so the symbolism and the religious connotations are reduced to a potent theatrical ambiguity: is Mr. Flanders a sort of post-modern sacred stew of Zen flavors mixed with Eros and Thanatos spices? Or is he just a sexy con artist ready to offer compassion and some form of erotic euthanasia for understandable terrestrial reasons such as money and expensive jewels taken tenderly from those ready to “step” on to the other—immaterial—side?
I found it truly fascinating to see Dukakis negotiating Flora’s last moments. A deeply theatrical meditation on death (see Ionesco’s Exit the King) can never have a smooth rational linear path, it implicitly allows for uncontrollable ups and downs, paranoia and hysteria, tragedy and comedy; an army of mood swings self-assigned to conquer the ultimate peace. I salute the masterful way in which the fiery Dukakis abandons herself to this roller coaster, navigating a complex landscape of tactics and feelings with humor, strength, and unique charisma.
Jeff Cowie's set looks like a luxurious sarcophagus, helping to provide an eerie atmosphere, adding to the beautiful theatricality of the production. Tennessee Williams’s fans and, generally, dedicated theatre-lovers will find many delights in this poetic, bold and sensual Milk Train. It’s a wonderful ride, not to be missed.